I am six months pregnant, sitting in my car in the parking lot scribbling down thoughts on the back of an envelope because in about five minutes I’m supposed to give a short speech in front of the congregation on behalf of my pastor and his wife who’ve served for the last decade.
This was not the plan. I was not supposed to give a speech. I don’t care how short it is, I do not do things off the cuff — especially speaking. I don’t mind giving talks, I actually love it, but I must have time to prepare, to think, to imagine. For crying out loud, I need time to pick out the right outfit.
But here I am, the baby inside me kick, kick, kicking and I’m using the steering wheel as a desk to catch the words that come fast. What I say will be funny and sweet, I have no doubt.
Satisfied and confident, I fold the envelope I’ve written on and slip it into my back pocket. I shut the car door, and face the building. I take a look at my shoes — an olive green high heeled pair of sandals with sparkly gems at the toes. Jesse bought them our first spring we were living in DC. They’re probably not the safest choice for a woman with child to wear, but, why not dress for the dream?
I give a little pat to the baby in my belly, and walk in.
Something solidified in me that day: Not only did I love to write, not only did I have a story for just about anything, but also I believed if I let myself, if I gave myself a chance, I could be good at it.
I didn’t know about Creative Nonfiction at the time, but I’d started a blog and what I wrote on it was essentially that — I was taking moments from my day and creating a story from them. And while I told myself I did this — I wrote — for me, the more I practiced and played with words, the more I understood that these stories were offerings. They weren’t only for me — they were for the world.
Sharing words well meant taking the time to think, to prepare, to make mistakes on paper, and to clean them up. However, something about having permission to mess up on the page doesn’t extend to mistakes when I speak. If I use a word incorrectly, if I don’t articulate what I mean precisely on paper, I can go back and fix it. I have editors who help me with my grammar and other fine tuning. This is not the case when I speak with others. If I stutter, if I blush, if I cry, if I lose my train of thought, if I say something I didn’t mean, or that I did mean but didn’t say it well, there’s no going back.
While writing has allowed me to look at ideas, thoughts, and feelings in new and different ways, while it’s shown me I can make stories from what shames, scares, or ails me, writing has also become a security blanket. I give everything I have to my writing, everything that I am, because at some point I have taught myself that it is the only place I can mess up and find a way through.
At my worst, I start every conversation off with an apology when I speak. Or I am three steps ahead of the conversation, anticipating where it will go; and making sure I am in control, or that I don’t get too worked up.
I hope to never stop writing, but I also hope to accept my messy Tazmanian Devil self as well off the page as I do on it.
My friend Sonya is helping me with that.
“I’m thinking about the orca whale,” she tells me one day on Voxer, the social media platform that I am on solely because of her. She goes on to share a story she heard about the whale, whose baby died shortly after being born. The mama whale wouldn’t let go of her baby. She swam with the baby for something like 1,000 miles, and at times, other whales swam with her, helping hold the baby up.
“I want to say something about this in regards to our own mothering,” Sonya tells me. “I want to use this as a way to show how we human mamas hold each other up, too.”
I grip the steering wheel when she says this. Sonya and I come at writing differently. She talks about what she wants to write before she writes it. Or, she’ll discuss an essay she’s stuck on. I never do this, and listening to her tell me about her idea feels reckless. Can she rein that idea in once it’s been spoken or shared?
This is Sonya’s process, though, and sure enough, a few weeks later she shows that there is plenty of life in a story once bits of it have been shared with a friend. Equally if not more important, Sonya teaches me that it’s OK to speak about something and be unsure about it at the same time.
I listen to Sonya’s messages on my way home from work. It’s a time of day when I don’t feel great. I’m tired from kids tapping on my shoulder, or pulling on my arm asking me where the Mo Willems books are even though I’m in the middle of a conversation, even though I’ve told them what feels like 200 hundred times before.
I’m tired of managing behaviors — wild behaviors that are symptoms of a system so broken it feels as though we are sinking in the Titanic trying to get rid of water with plastic spoons. Working in two schools is exhausting me; switching gears from Kindergarten to 3rd grade to 5th grade is hard on me. I’m not thriving in this job and I don’t know what to do about it. Worse, I believe it’s my fault I can’t get it together. I feel like I’ve made the cut for the all star basketball team, and the coach puts me in the games, but all I do is shoot bricks. Nobody can figure out why I was good before, and why I’m not good now.
I don’t tell all this to Sonya. It’s too much, I think. It’s too much for me, and since I’m the only one who can figure it out, I don’t want anyone else to bear this. I tell her my job is hard. I say I’m confused and exhausted but that’s as far as I go because it’s boring and painful and also she and I are having another discussion on books and how to read them.
We both agree that it isn’t possible to write well if we aren’t reading well, but we are also curious about how to teach this concept, especially, when it comes to teaching middle or high schoolers. How do we teach the importance of articulate, passionate expression when what is assigned in school doesn’t always capture the students?
“Take To Kill a Mockingbird,” Sonya says, and I can hear teasing in her voice. She knows my love for this book, but we also agree that it isn’t one that grabs too many teenagers right away. “How would you teach that?”
I feel a stab in my stomach — a caterpillar that thinks it wants to become a butterfly but is too afraid and so stays wrapped tightly in its cocoon. Except, deep down, the caterpillar knows there’s nothing she can do to stop the process of what it is she is becoming, and talking to Sonya, the cocoon begins to disintegrate.
“I’d have them read The Hate You Give alongside To Kill a Mockingbird,” I blurt out. “I’d have them compare the fathers in the story — Maverick Carter and Atticus Finch.” I think for a minute and add, “Bob Ewell, too. And Tom Robinson.”
The caterpillar feels wings, but isn’t sure. I begin to daydream. We’d make travel guides of each of the settings in the stories and then do the same for our own neighborhoods. I’d teach them how to create scene out of setting, as both Harper Lee and Angie Thomas do. I’d teach them how to evoke emotion from a hollow tree, a four way stop, a corner convenient shop.
I think of Emmett Till and remember Ghost Boys. I’d assign one of the Ghost Boys in the book as a research project, and I’d teach the components of research using the news reports of the shootings of black American boys. The entire theme of my To Kill a Mockingbird unit would be this: we are to bear each other’s stories.
I don’t say any of this to Sonya. I stop at the comparison of the fathers in the two stories. I feel like I’ve said too much, the idea is probably dumb, it’s not worth mentioning anyway because I’m not teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m not teaching at all.
The caterpillar pays no attention to her growing wings and the breaking cocoon. She wants to sleep with a dream she can’t yet articulate.
In her next message, Sonya says, “Callie,” and her voice relays excitement or surprise or both. “You have to teach that class,” she tells me. “I want to take that class.”
I laugh, listening to her as I drive home from work, grateful for her friendship, grateful for Sonya who shows me the thrill and delight there is in letting pieces of me escape before I’m ready for them to fly. Because of Sonya, I have faith that there’s plenty of life left in what’s not yet been completely formed.
A Writer’s Dream Book
“Callie Feyen has such a knack for telling personal stories that transcend her own life. In my years in publishing, I’ve seen how hard that is—but she makes it seem effortless, and her book is such a pleasure. It’s funny, it’s warm, it’s enlightening. Callie writes about two of the most important things in life—books and clothes—in utterly delightful and truly moving ways. I’m impressed by how non-gimmicky and fresh her writing is. I love this book.”
—Sarah Smith, Executive Editor Prevention magazine; former Executive Editor Redbook magazine
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